When she really gets going, Mary Purchase - professor emeritus at Cornell University's College of Human Ecology - can clean her whole house in an hour. OK, she cheats. She lives alone (no gooey-fingered children, no untidy spouse, no shedding pet) in a small house.
But as a professional home economist, Dr. Purchase knows a lot of tricks, both little and large, to streamline housekeeping and make it easier to do. Tricks like buying lots of wastebaskets: ``If you're eating an apple in front of the TV and you have to get up and go all the way upstairs to dump the core in the garbage,'' she says, ``chances are you won't do it. But if you have a wastebasket nearby that's emptied fairly often, you eliminate a lot of clutter.''
Shoving out the clutter eliminates ``42 percent of your housework,'' contends Don Aslett, a professional cleaner and author of ``Is There Life After Housework?''
By dumping all the ``dust-collecting doo-dads and piles of magazines you'll never read,'' you make the house look better and eliminate the need to do a lot of special cleaning, he says. ``We look at pictures of Burt Reynolds's kitchen with 5,000 copper jello molds shining on the walls, and think we're supposed to live like that,'' he says. But it's just not practical, he adds.
The most practical approach to housework, Purchase says, is prevention.
For example, having a good mat outside your front door eliminates tracked-in dirt, she points out. (Mr. Aslett thinks you should have another right inside the door for extra measure.)
She also thinks that having a place for everything gives you a better shot at having everything put away. But Aslett warns against the mentality that ``goes to one of these do-it-yourself stores and buys 58 things to put inside your kitchen cabinets for more storage. Ask yourself, `Do I really need this? If not, where can I store it?''' he suggests.
Together with his daughter, interior designer Laura Aslett Simons, Aslett wrote the definitive guide to preventative housekeeping. Called ``Make Your House Do the Housework,'' it includes an abundance of suggestions for making maintenance easy in your home, such as:
Suspending lamps and small appliances under cabinets. The next time you replace your toaster, he suggests, get an under-the-cabinet model. The less you have to move and replace as you clean, the easier it is (built-in beds and cabinets are ideal for this reason, too).
Set up control centers for each room. In your bedroom, for instance, if there's one area where you empty your pockets, shed clothes, apply makeup, and use tissue, there will be one place that requires heavy cleaning - and the rest of the room will stay orderly most of the time. Another way to concentrate cleaning areas is to put all your houseplants in one room (one place to water, sweep dirt, etc.).
Use wire shelving in the bathroom, laundry room, kitchen, etc. - dust falls right through.
Replace the bedclothes with a comforter (chances are better that your kids will make the bed).
Replace the shower doors with a curtain.
Replace soap bars with liquid soap.
Put a full-length mirror in the bathroom away from the sink and tub. That way, people will comb their hair without clogging the pipes.
Put housekeeping items where needed - put a cloth and the cleaner you use on the bathroom under the lavatory sink, put wastebaskets near all desks, put a magazine rack near your comfortable chair, get a hand-held vacuum cleaner for the dining room. The easier you make it to do housework, the more likely it will get done.
We asked the folks at Ramada Inn - an industry where housekeeping makes or breaks reputations - how they applied these principles.
The preventative aspect comes heavily into play in motel furnishings, known for their tough, easy-to-clean surfaces. They also suspend furnishings (like the bed table and lamps) from the wall - the better to vacuum. Even the toilet is suspended from the wall in many motels - an idea Aslett says he'd like to see duplicated in most homes (``much easier to clean - you just run a mop underneath instead of fiddling with all those floor screws'').
The Ramada people are also trained to carry a cartload of supplies (linens, soaps, tissue paper) and cleaning equipment; a home housekeeper could easily duplicate this with a small bucket containing a spray bottle each of light-duty cleaner, glass cleaner, and heavy-duty cleaner, plus a cleaning brush and sponges.
The home economists we talked to recommended starting with your ``dry cleaning'' (done without liquid), and working your way in a pattern around each room. Purchase uses the dusting and upholstery attachments of her vacuum cleaner ``more than most people, because it actually picks up dirt instead of just moving it around.''
She cleans each room by first removing clutter, putting everything away, and then using her vacuum around the room, going from the top to the floor.
In the kitchen and bathroom, she uses the same method, except that surfaces are handled with a cleaning solution.
Neither Purchase nor Aslett were much impressed with fancy cleaning solutions; any basic cleaner will do, they think.
``Go down to a janitorial supply store and spend $6 for a gallon of concentrate,'' Aslett recommends. ``It'll save you hundreds at the grocery store.''
How often this cleaning gets done depends on how often you want to do it, Purchase says.
``You need to watch how quickly things get dirty, and then put them into a cleaning routine - once a day, once a week, once a month, and so on,'' she says. ``The trick is to do it regularly, so it doesn't build up.''
See? She cheats.
``Make your House Do the Housework,'' by Don Aslett and Laura Aslett Simons, is available from Writer's Digest Books, 9933 Alliance Rd., Cincinnati, OH 45242, for $9.95 (plus $2.00 for shipping and handling).